Towns remember horrors of Holocaust

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Hundreds of South Orange and Maplewood residents came together on Sunday, April 15, to remember the victims of the Holocaust and to pledge that such an atrocity will not happen again on their watch. The Holocaust is the name given to the mass murder of Jews, homosexuals, disabled people, Romani and many more that was perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II; according to historians, 15 million people were murdered in the Holocaust.

For some, the annual commemoration began hours before 41st annual SOMA Interfaith Holocaust Remembrance Service convened at Congregation Beth El in South Orange. A small group of residents gathered first at Kol Rina in South Orange to make signs touting peace, tolerance and unity, which were then carried aloft during a march of remembrance from Spiotta Park to Beth El. The march, which included approximately 30 participants, despite the cold and the wind, was led by Boy Scout Troop 118, a Jewish unit.

While making signs, the middle school-aged Scouts discussed the importance of remembering the Holocaust and the ongoing struggle they see in their own communities to combat anti-Semitism and ignorance. Many of the problems pointed out by the Scouts were later echoed by several speakers.

Prior to the march, Interfaith Holocaust Committee member Sheryl Hoffman discussed the importance of Holocaust education.

“I had the privilege this past Tuesday (April 10) to attend a press conference where N.Y. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney introduced bipartisan legislation on Holocaust education,” Hoffman said. “The Never Again Education Act will give teachers across the United States the resources and training they need to teach our middle and high school students the important lessons of the Holocaust and the consequences of intolerance and hate. Currently there are only nine states where Holocaust education is mandatory; thankfully, New Jersey is one of them. There are only 12 states where Holocaust education is recommended.”

Each year at the service, the Sister Rose Thering Holocaust Education Award is presented to an outstanding educator; the award is named for the late Seton Hall University professor whose work focused on combating hatred, and understanding the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust.

“No one would want to be here at this service more than Sister Rose,” award presenter David Bossman said; Thering helped found the event with Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein and Max Randall in 1977.

This year’s award was given to Heather Mecka, an eighth-grade teacher at Hackensack Middle School, who is seeking to expand her knowledge of the Holocaust through a program at SHU.

“I’ve been a teacher for the past 23 years and I have taught Holocaust studies for every one of those years,” Mecka said, adding that she finds it to be the “most important unit” she teaches. According to Mecka, its importance has been spelled out by her students throughout the years, who, when asked why learning this unit is imperative for students, have responded “to learn from the past,” “to pay respect to those who died,” “because this could have been prevented” and “because there is inhumanity in the world today.”

Multiple speakers discussed distressing statistics recently released by the Anti-Defamation League. According to ADL, anti-Semitic incidents increased by 57 percent in 2017 — the largest increase in a single year since the ADL began tracking it in 1979. The ADL also found that 31 percent of Americans and 41 percent of millennials believe that only 2 million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust, contrary to the actual 6 million. The study also reported that 41 percent of Americans and 66 percent of millenials do not know about Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi death camps.

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El also spoke of the recent ADL findings and of the continued importance of studying the Holocaust, focusing on “Remember and Tell,” the event’s motto.

“‘Remember and Tell’ is our promise. To tell the stories so etched in the minds of so many of us, the stories that keep us awake at night,” Olitzky said, highlighting how difficult the Holocaust is for students to understand. He said students feel especially confused after learning about Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, a wave of anti-Semitic pogroms in 1938, and then are told that historians date the beginning of the Holocaust to 1941. “Students are dumbfounded. What happened between 1938 and 1941 that no one stood up and said anything?

“What does ‘never again’ mean?” he continued. “Is it just a slogan? Is it just a hashtag? Is it just a call that falls on deaf ears? Or is it a promise to rise up against hatred and bigotry? So we pray that ‘never again’ is now. We have a responsibility not just to remember, to tell, but to speak up, to stand up.”

Many other speakers echoed these same sentiments.

“We have made a statement with our voices and our feet to remember what is good in the human race; the Holocaust stands for what is worst in the human race,” Martha Gallahue of the Ethical Culture Society of Essex County, which is based in Maplewood, said prior to the march. “Let us remember it is our duty to speak truth to power wherever we put our bodies. We must also remember that (bigotry) continues today within various countries.”

In an effort to ensure the world will not forget what happened during the Holocaust, the Interfaith Holocaust Committee brings a survivor to deliver the keynote speech at each year’s event. This year, Robert Max, whom historians believe to be the last living American soldier to have survived and escaped Nazi slave labor in World War II, described his harrowing ordeal as a prisoner of war.

Max described leaving Ohio University as a sophomore to join the war effort, returning home to South Orange before heading to Fort Dix for training. While at Fort Dix, the saxophonist and clarinetist joined a base band — a position he could have stayed in, had he wanted to do so.

“I could have stayed there the entire war. But my buddies were shipping out and I knew that if I looked back one day and someone asked me what I did during the war, I wouldn’t be happy saying I played in a band,” Max said, recalling a bandmate telling him, “Kid, you leave here, you’re never coming back.”

“And that was very close to the truth,” Max said.

Max was deployed in the European theater and engaged in three major campaigns; he was ultimately captured in 1945 during the Battle of the Bulge. He recalled German soldiers finding him and four other men attempting to hide in a cellar; he saw a ring of black automatic guns pointed at his face, wielded by German soldiers wearing white capes as camouflage against the snow.

“The contrast of those black guns and white capes is still so vivid in my mind,” he said.

At this point, he had believed himself to be a dead man, as the Germany army had been issued a command to kill enemy soldiers rather than take prisoners. But he was spared following a conversation with his captor, who spoke near-perfect English. With shells falling all around them, the German soldier had asked Max, “Why are you Americans here? This is not your war.” Max responded, “You made it our war.”

Max ultimately believes the German soldier spared him because of Max’s resemblance in age and appearance to the soldier’s son; the soldier had shown Max a family photograph before sending him to be a prisoner of war, a status that would theoretically save him from death.

But the reality was that Max nearly died while a POW. The German officers stripped him of his gloves and coat, leaving him to freeze in weather that was between zero and 5 degrees Fahrenheit; according to Max, he and many others were then forced to march, given just a crust of bread and a cup of hot water each day, and forced to sleep in the ice and slush on the road.

“I was dying there night after night; I felt the deterioration going on in my body,” Max said. “My body was deteriorating, but my mind was alive.”

Many Jewish-American soldiers had been warned that, if captured, they should throw away their dog tags so the German army would not know their religion. But Max refused to do so.

“I was 20, and I decided that I was not going to concede to them my sense of Jewishness,” Max said. In addition to his dog tags, Max carried around his neck a Jewish star and a mini mezuzah, the Torah scroll placed on the doors of Jewish homes.

As a POW, Max was forced to repair railroads that had been destroyed by the Allied forces. Despite their pain, starvation and cold, Max and his fellow POWs were adamant that they would not help the German war effort.

“It became an imperative to us that we would not fix those roadways,” Max said, saying that they would fail to link the tracks together and would fill in holes in such a way that they would collapse under the pressure of a train. “We were pleased at least for this very, very short period that we had done something constructive. We had sabotaged the German railroads.”

Max eventually escaped with two other American POWs, aided by an older German couple who risked their own lives to save the Americans.

By the time Max was reunited with the American forces, he was very ill and ultimately lost part of his foot to gangrene. Also, though he had weighed 155 pounds prior to his service, he weighed just 89 pounds when he reached the hospital.

For his service during the war, Max, who will be 95 years old in July, has been awarded the Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster, three Bronze Campaign Battle Stars and the New Jersey Distinguished Service Medal. At the insistence of his wife, Max began writing his memoir at age 93. “The Long March Home” details his experiences as a Nazi slave laborer, ensuring that his story will live on after him.

Photos by Yael Katzwer